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Meet the Filmmakers: Frank Stiefel--'Ingelore'

By Tom White

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, July 31-August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Frank Stiefel, director/producer of Ingelore.

Synopsis: Ingelore Herz Honigstein is a deaf Jewish women born in Germany. She said her first word at age 6 and completed her first sentence at 12. She offers a unique prospective to the events leading to the Holocaust and her escape to America. Her story includes a brutal rape by Nazi cadets, a kind New York City doctor who performs an illegal abortion in 1940, and her lessons of personal freedom.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Frank Stiefel: For many years I have been an executive producer in the commercial industry. Executive producer is primarily a business function, but it's one of those jobs that allows for a great deal of interpretation. My interpretation has always leaned toward the creative execution of the project, and through the years I have worked closely with many talented directors.

IDA: What inspired you to make Ingelore?

FS: Ingelore is my mother's story.

While I had heard many pieces of the story over the years, the first time I heard it as a single narrative was three years ago as she lectured to a room of deaf students at National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester, New York.
At a moment in the lecture, I knew this should be a film. A moment later, I appointed myself to direct.

Ingelore is the first project that I have directed. Its original purpose was to leave the film to my children so that a record survived of their grandmother. As the film proceeded, it became more of an art project that took on a larger piece of my life.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

FS: There were a set of guidelines that I drew up at the very beginning so that I could maintain focus. They included a desire that the film work for a deaf audience as well as one that heard. This took the film toward a greater visual density, as I wanted to show the story as well as tell it.

We used a great deal of archival footage and shot four period re-enactments. The re-enactments promised to be budget-busters if done conventionally. Three were done in a seven-hour period in the same building with the most meager of props and wardrobe. The fourth was a night chase through the streets of Berlin with a crew of three, next to no lighting and no permits or location clearances.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

FS: The first thing I shot was the interview, which became the skeleton that allowed for the other textures of archival, re-enactment and vérité footage to be applied. In broad ways the film is like I imagined. It is an emotional journey rather than one taken at arm's length. The road to that end was shared with a very strong editor, Ting Poo, who was able to bring her own point of view to the story. We would discuss the emotional beats that various sections might have. I would leave her alone with the footage of that section until she had a construction. More often than not I would marvel at how she got to those beats by using the footage in a manner that was as much hers as mine.

IDA:  As you've screened Ingelore-whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

FS: One of the disciplines I had to bring to the process was to build in a clinical detachment that allowed for some room between the story and the storyteller. This film is about as personal as any film I'm likely to make. It is my mother's story; she is the only interview subject and therefore the reactions to the film are very personal. One of the gratifying results of screening the film is the universality of reaction to her story. While she is a very unique person with a very singular story, the film connects to a deep emotional chord within all who see the film.

Ingelore will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in Los Angeles, click here.

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To download the DocuWeeksTM program in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in New York, click here.